First launched in 2012, one of Google’s projects is nearing the point at which it will transform from research to reality—“Project Loon.” The basic premise is to provide internet access in remote locations via what are essentially routers attached to balloons. This would allow people who are otherwise excluded from the internet, and by extension the wider twenty-first century phenomenon, access to the “information economy.” Due to various technological setbacks, including many burst balloons, the team at Google X has come up with something that is able to stand on its own two feet. But the wider question is: what would be the effects of this hugely increased access to internet?
There are many effects of this, but let’s concentrate on two. The first is financial. Getting internet access to remote areas and isolated populations has always been a logistical headache. The infrastructural requirement is huge and the traditional “last mile” problem, where the last part of the connection from the “trunk” to the home connection is the most difficult, is bad enough in cities and areas with a high population density. Generally, it has therefore been limited to communications satellites, which have the downside of being very expensive to build, maintain, and launch. Project Loon’s balloon costs are infinitesimal, relatively speaking, therefore knocking down the cost barrier to reach isolated, and often quite poor, populations.
Once access to the internet at cheap and affordable rates is achieved, then local artisans, farmers, and other producers can instantly plug in to wider markets for their goods as well as more competitive services. Google’s own researchers state that just a 10 percent increase in internet penetration in a country can increase the GDP by 1.4 percent per year. This means helping to raise the living standards of millions. But not only this—it also makes a good business case too. If a telecoms company suddenly has hundreds of thousands of new subscribers, then even if they are paying only a fraction of their small wages, you are still making a profit on the low capital cost of hardware.
Furthermore, Project Loon can make a huge difference to humanitarian efforts. Companies and organizations rely increasingly on the internet to organize their efforts and logistics. In the event of a natural disaster, for example when a hurricane has knocked out the power grid including communications, then Google’s balloons can provide an instant and inexpensive way of getting back in touch with the people on the ground. All of this without having to clear roads or repair lines.
This is highly beneficial for the victims of natural disasters too. With the rise of smartphones even in developing countries, the provision of instant reconnection to the internet through the actions of an overhead balloon provides a valuable lifeline.
Providing speedy and reliable internet access to almost everyone in the world? This has shown to be possible, and for a fraction of the cost of traditional “hard-wired” infrastructure. What’s more—the potential benefits are large enough to make it a crime not to attempt it.
Story By: Adam Faust, Founder, Deep Blue Financial